Note: Yesterday Fred Phelps, the infamous leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, announced that his group would disrupt Elizabeth Edwards' funeral tomorrow in Raleigh. At the very least Mrs. Edwards is in good company: Phelps has previously picketed the funerals of Coretta Scott King, Fred Rogers, and even Jerry Falwell. [Here's a Q&A from my site GayManners.com that I've previously answered about Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.]
Q: Every so often I read of a military funeral that has been picketed or disrupted by the Westboro Baptist Church, whose main web site is GodHatesFags.com. I feel terrible for these families who not only have suffered a major loss, but must also deal with these kinds of protests on top of it. What can be done? Is this beyond manners?
A: First of all, a little background. The Westboro Baptist Church is infamous for its anti-LGBT protests and claims that most of the calamities affecting our country (both natural disasters and terrorist attacks) are God's punishment for a society that tolerates homosexuality. Led by the disbarred lawyer, Fred Phelps, the group usually protests at high-profile events like military funerals and gay pride parades, claiming more than 43,000 protests to date "opposing the fag lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth." Phelps claims that the First Amendment protects his actions and speech and recent court decisions have supported that view.
To your question, indeed, much of what can be done in instances like these is beyond manners and in the realm of law. In 2006, a federal law, the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act was enacted, banning protests within 300 feet of national cemeteries, from an hour before a funeral to an hour after it. Violators face fines up to $100,000. This act is also currently subject to further court review.
Otherwise, do not engage with them at all since the protestors seek to disrupt painful, private events, like these military funerals, and want to create havoc, yelling, and screaming back and forth that will capture local news crews. If family members see that their particular funeral is being targeted for protest (Westboro's very sophisticated site publicizes all protests), they can contact the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcyclists that will provide a non-violent buffer between the mourners and the protestors. Otherwise, the best that can be done is to instruct ushers and staff to hold up sheets to visibly shield the family from the protestors. And, take solace in the fact the God Hates Fags protestors have also targeted the funerals of such notables as Coretta Scott King, Fred Rogers and even Jerry Falwell. [And now Elizabeth Edwards.]